Middle East Autocrats Target South Asian Workers

Hundreds of Nepalis and others have been deported under cover of the pandemic.

Qatari charity workers prepare food parcels for migrant laborers
Qatari charity workers prepare food parcels for migrant laborers living under quarantine in Doha on April 16. Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

Qatar’s forceful and illegal deportation of Nepali workers on March 15 and 19 under the pretext of testing them for the coronavirus has raised new fears about the fate of South Asian migrant workers in the Middle East during the pandemic. The expelled workers had no opportunity to collect their belongings, collect their pay or benefits, or to challenge the expulsion.

According to Amnesty International, which interviewed 20 of the victims, hundreds of workers, most of them Nepali, were coerced and detained last month in egregious conditions after officials assured them they could return to their accommodations—only to kick them out of the country several days later without testing everyone. Only a small minority even had their temperatures checked.

The migrant workers were detained in Industrial Area, Barwa City, and Labour City—all parts of Doha—and deceitfully told by the police that it was only a medical checkup. The Qatar police took biometric information from the foreign workers crammed in the detention center before putting them in over-packed accommodation without providing adequate food and water.

The Doha Industrial Area, already infamous for slum conditions and overcrowded camps, is now under strict police monitoring and effectively sealed off. The area mostly hosts workers building infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, who even before the pandemic faced poor conditions and unsafe workspaces.

The Qatari government has denied the allegations, but they’re part of a pattern of abuse of migrant workers not just in Qatar but across the Middle East—workers who are now dangerously exposed to the vagaries of authoritarian governments during the pandemic.

The oil-rich Middle East countries built their fortresses with the blood and sweat of foreign laborers, but during the pandemic the workers, who live in crowded dormitories, are seen as a source of infection. The protections extended to citizens routinely exclude migrant workers, both economically and in public health terms. Qatar itself reports so far 7,764 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, with 10 deaths, but these numbers are likely to be an underestimate.

About 2.6 million Nepali migrant workers are spread across the Middle East, South Korea, and Malaysia. Among them, 1.5 million Nepalis work in the Persian Gulf and Malaysia, and 400,000 in Qatar. Most of the Nepali workers are stuck abroad due to Nepal’s closure of its borders until April 30, leaving them highly vulnerable—although foreign governments have forced Nepal to accept some flights of deportees.

The contribution of migrant workers to Nepal’s GDP is invaluable; the country received $8.6 billion in remittances last year. Many South Asian countries are equally dependent on remittances from their workers abroad, according to the World Bank’s 2019 data, including India ($82 billion in remittances), Bangladesh ($17 billion), Pakistan ($21 billion), and Sri Lanka ($7 billion).

Despite the massive contribution made by their migrant workers, South Asian countries have either ignored the plight of these workers during the pandemic or made no significant plans to ease their hardships. In part, that’s because the workers tend to be from the poorest and least politically powerful groups at home.

The situation of Nepali migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain need to be addressed immediately. Thousands of Nepali workers have been laid off in those nations, and some companies have not even provided proper housing and food for even the workers they keep on.

Janak Raj Sapkota, the author of Kahar, a book on Nepali migrant workers, told Foreign Policy: “In the Gulf and Malaysia alone there are 1.5 million legal workers. The number of undocumented workers is also going up. The government has consulted with Nepalese ambassadors in those countries to see what can be done. … But this is not enough for the management of millions of workers. What to do if a worker returns? The government does not seem to have made serious preparations to isolate them.”

As coronavirus cases rise in the Middle East, migrant workers from around the world, and particularly from South Asia, will be the worst-hit. Both local governments and South Asian nations need to step up their plans to protect workers in Qatar and elsewhere, from protecting them from police brutality to ensuring they are properly compensated for the labor they’ve already done.

The UAE has threatened that Nepal and other South Asian countries must repatriate the workers or face the suspension of bilateral labor agreements. There is no guarantee that other Middle Eastern countries won’t follow suit.

Middle Eastern countries should protect migrant workers regardless of their legal status amid the pandemic by providing health support, an extension of visas, and announcing financial aid. But they are unlikely to do so, given their record of exploitation and abuse. South Asian countries also need to brace themselves to absorb the effects of the decline in remittances, and  to come up with a concrete plan to protect their citizens abroad and lay out an emergency plan to bring back workers when needed and help them to adapt in this volatile time.

Arun Budhathoki is a Nepalese journalist and poet.

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